AN UGLY little guerrilla war is waged in the English countryside through each autumn, winter and spring. It is an affair of deep fear and loathing, split lips and black eyes, chases and ambushes, as hunt saboteurs clash with hunting folk on horseback and their followers on foot.
With the opening of the new season three weeks off, there are fears that this year's could be uglier than ever. Some 3,000 regular saboteurs will be disrupting 50 of Britain's 340 hunt meetings each week, says their spokesman, Ben Ponton.
Usually the worst damage done is cuts requiring stitches, concussion and a few days in hospital. But the conflict killed someone last year and may well do so again. Thomas Worby, aged 15, was crushed by a horsebox with the Cambridgeshire Foxhounds as he attempted to decouple it from a vehicle during a hunt near St Neots.
Thomas, who attended a home for children with behavioural difficulties, was with saboteurs from Milton Keynes who are known in field sport circles for being particularly dedicated and disruptive.
They target several hunts but the one singled out for most disruption is the Bicester Hunt with Whaddon Chase - an amalgamation of two hunts.
It is fairly large, rides four times a week and is known for some celebrated members and guest riders including Michael Heseltine's wife, Anne. Baroness Mallalieu, a Labour spokeswoman in the Lords, and John Mortimer's wife, Penny, are also members. Together, they are trying to make Labour tolerate hunting.
Among saboteurs, this hunt - the BHWC - is well known for fighting back. From Milton Keynes, Toni Gellard and her boyfriend, Stephen Price, leading activists in the Three Shires Hunt Saboteurs, regularly set out to confront the BHWC.
A week ago she was confronted herself, with a minor explosion under her Peugeot car parked outside her home near the town centre. A small box-shaped device produced a loud bang, flames and large quantities of smoke. First the fire brigade and then the army bomb squad attended while police cordoned off the estate.
Ms Gellard, 23, says a spent shotgun cartridge was thrown in her garden a few days before the incident, and afterwards fuses were removed from the fusebox outside her front door. She believes she is being warned off by hunt supporters - a claim the BHWC rejects. 'Her allegation is a disgrace and we condemn the placing of this device,' said Robert Vallence, its secretary.' It's made me angry but it's not going to put me off sabbing,' said Ms Gellard.
She admits she and her colleagues fight back when cornered, although they have sometimes telephoned the police for help. 'We used to be passive but now we stick up for ourselves,' she said. 'A lot of us do carry sticks - you would use them if necessary.'
'Sabbing' has brought her into conflict with the law. She was bound over to keep the peace last year and is now facing a charge of Actual Bodily Harm after an incident involving a woman hunter on horseback. She will plead not guilty.
The BHWC, like several hunts which face repeated sabotage, has organised stewards to monitor the saboteurs. These men and women are drawn from the foot followers and they tail the saboteurs' vans in Land Rovers and video-record them. They can also legally remove them using minimum force from land on which they are trespassing after giving them three warnings.
Members of the BHWC and other hunts find the press and public perception of the conflict almost as infuriating as the sabotage. This is not a battle over the morality of fox- hunting but of the rule of law in the countryside, they say. They are following a traditional and completely legal rural pursuit. The saboteurs are urban fanatics who march on to land they do not own and break laws of trespass as well as ruining their fun and endangering them.
The Earl of Yarborough hunts several times a week with the Brocklesby Hunt in Lincolnshire and was attacked in his car on the way to a meet two weeks ago. He said: 'There have been so many incidents of abuse, threats and violence - we're getting fed up and very angry.' He cites threats to burn down houses and the wielding of a broken bottle.
'I'm certainly not going to stop,' he said. 'We've been hunting here for 400 years. But you wonder how much abuse people can take.'
Huntsmen concede that their on-foot followers who are 'at the thick end of it all' have been caught up in more violence because they say saboteurs are more skilled at provoking punch-ups. 'They go for the young farmers, whom it's easier to set off,' said one. The use of stewards with a mandate to remove trespassers has also raised the potential for violence.
The BHWC's record is not spotless. One of its kennelmen, Michael Smith, and hunt marshal Richard Cheshire were each jailed for two months last year after a well-known saboteur was pushed into the path of a four-wheel 'quad' motorcycle and injured.
Both sides have unpleasant tales to tell of finding themselves heavily outnumbered then kicked and beaten on some quiet rural by-way by 'thugs'. Both sides say they will never surrender.
Two weeks ago a young Somerset farmer, Tom Osborne, of the Mendip Farmers Foxhounds, was set upon by several saboteurs on his land near Wells. Acid was sprayed in his eyes and he was hit on the head with a stick studded with tacks. He fell unconscious, bleeding heavily, and spent several days in hospital.
That same day three hunt observers from the League Against Cruel Sports - who do not take part in sabotage - were attacked by followers of that hunt, said Kevin Saunders of the league. 'They were all bashed in the face and had thick lips.'
All this has been taking place during the prelims - the cub-hunting season, when small patches of woodland are surrounded by huntsmen and the young, inexperienced hounds sent in with a few veteran dogs to seek out cubs.
The police have become increasingly frequent visitors at hunt meetings as the sabotage and violence has escalated. But once the Criminal Justice Bill is enacted in the next few weeks, their presence may become much more obvious. The Bill effectively makes hunt sabotage a crime rather than a matter of trespass and the huntsmen are pinning their hopes on the constabulary to re-establish law and order in the countryside. It is not a task they relish.
In our report on hunt sabotage on 9 October we reported that 15-year-old hunt saboteur Thomas Worby was crushed under the wheels of a horsebox last year as he tried to decouple it from a vehicle. We accept that Thomas, from Milton Keynes, did not make any attempt to decouple a horsebox before his death and we regret the error.
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